Further education became a sector outside local education authority control three years ago as an engine of education and training for economic recovery.Despite stiff resistance from opposition parties and LEAs, rapid expansion spawned some remarkable partnerships and co-operative ventures with schools, universities and training and enterprise councils. As David Melville, incoming chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, told The TES: "FE will expand to embrace the rest, rather than the other way round. "
They already have, mopping-up 11 per cent of HE provision. Regional links between colleges and universities are growing and networks of colleges and school sixth-forms have thrived despite stiff competition for 16-year-olds.
But when does partnership warrant a merger? And what is a merger? Sir James Goldsmith once said: "There is no such thing as a merger, only a takeover. "
There has been much talk of new comprehensive post-16 institutions - legal mergers of FE colleges and universities. But each partner must ask what is in it for them. Are they signing a contract for growth and efficiency or a suicide note?
Those arguing for mergers say they improve student access and progression between FE and HE and bring economies of scale. They increase the range of options. They increase new teaching and research opportunities for staff and create HE options for students closer to home. It sounds good but the FEFC and ministers insist the case is far from proven.
As Lucy Ward writes on page 26, when it comes to the crunch, many are wary of cross-sector mergers. The drive too often comes from cash-strapped universities looking for new areas for expansion. Neighbouring colleges who are not part of the mergers will lose out. Their students could not have the guaranteed progression. A West Midlands plan for FE-university merger has run into trouble after the FEFC described the plan as more a mission statement than a detailed application. A similar Derby initiative is also foundering.
When colleges look to the small print, the legal ties and exclusive deals demanded, they question what is in it for them. No longer equal partners and without the independence gained three years ago, they ask whether a looser arrangement would not be preferable.
There is also a fear of academic drift, with colleges moving from their core function. That function is to promote lifetime learning for all, help fill the skills gap, offer diverse choices for 16-year-olds and help Britain hit the national targets for education and training. And where would all the other interests fit into the equation - sixth-forms, TECs, industry, voluntary sector trainers? As Gillian Shephard pointed out in January: the core functions of FE and HE are different.
If as suggested, the incumbent FEFC chief executive Sir William Stubbs is as wary of FE-HE mergers as his successsor, then here they both reflect the caution of ministers and senior civil servants. Having created the new FE sector, they do not want it hi-jacked by HE. The shape of post-compulsory education is fluid. But what is clear is that FE must stay and grow centre stage and not be swallowed up by other interests.